Whether you like him or hate him, the president isn’t quite who we thought he was.
Gail Collins: Bret, last fall we had a brief talk about filibusters and you said you didn’t like the idea of getting rid of them.
Bret Stephens: Still don’t.
Gail: Apologies for leaping back into our conversational history — I hope this blast from the past doesn’t encourage you to check up on everything I ever said. But in this case I am happy to note that when we last talked about it, I proposed that filibusters could be “a future topic without Donald Trump pushing us both to the same side.”
So, any updates on your end?
Bret: I think Democrats will rue the day — probably sooner than they think — if they eliminate the filibuster. First, it will tempt them to try to jam through legislation that might be popular with the liberal base but will lead to another midterm electoral drubbing from Republicans, just like in 2010.
Gail: Well, we might want to discuss that a little bit … But go ahead with your list.
Bret: Second, it will give Republicans that much more power when they next have control of the White House and Congress, which is bound to happen sooner or later.
And third, it’s pure hypocrisy. Didn’t a certain junior senator from Illinois give an impassioned speech in 2005 defending the filibuster when Republicans were trying to get rid of it back then? And didn’t a senior senator from Delaware also say at the time that ending the filibuster would “eviscerate the Senate?”
But I gather you feel differently.
Gail: I’m OK with keeping the old-fashioned version, where somebody had to actually keep talking. Senators decided long ago that they weren’t going to waste their energy. Basically now, you can more or less just say “OK, I’m filibustering” and then go down to the cafeteria for a Coke.
Bret: Yeah, but that would mean being forced to listen to Ted Cruz read “Green Eggs and Ham” from the Senate floor, as he did during a filibuster back in 2013. It would be a case of hearing a book that hopefully won’t be taken out of public circulation from a politician who hopefully will. Sorry, go on.
Gail: Let’s get back to our new president. You’ve been a fan, but by now he should have done or said something to remind you he’s not in your political ballpark. Any particularly egregious examples?
Bret: I say all of this without venom, Gail, because I will forever be grateful to the president for restoring normality and decency to the Oval Office.
Gail: Waiting for: But …
Bret: But I think that his $3 trillion infrastructure plan — coming on top of the $1.9 trillion Covid package — is fiscally reckless. And his failure to acknowledge a migration crisis at the border is politically heedless. And comparing Georgia’s new election laws to a return to Jim Crow is historically and factually clueless. And, well, I’ll stop there.
Gail: Let’s start with Georgia and Jim Crow. We are talking here about the new law that makes it illegal to give water to somebody who’s been waiting in line for hours to vote.
Bret: The law allows poll workers to provide water “from an unattended receptacle,” like a water cooler. The point isn’t to dehydrate voters; it’s to stop electioneering and subtle intimidation at the polls. It expands early voting in most counties, including offering two Sunday voting days. It allows every eligible voter to request a mail ballot, without having to cite a reason. It gets rid of signature matching, which has disproportionately disqualified ballots cast by Black voters. And the changes are being overseen by Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state, who, just a few months ago, we were all saluting as a national hero for standing up to Trump’s bullying.
My point isn’t to defend every jot and tittle of the law. But the comparison to Jim Crow strikes me as just a tad overblown.
Gail: Bottom line is that politicians want rules that make voting pleasant for their own supporters but maybe not quite so much for the other side. The problem with Republicans is that their non-supporters tend to include most poor and minority voters.
What should the Biden administration prioritize?
- Nicholas Kristof, Opinion columnist, writes that “Biden’s proposal to establish a national pre-K and child care system would be a huge step forward for children and for working parents alike.”
- The Editorial Board argues the president should address a tax system where “most wage earners pay their fair share while many business owners engage in blatant fraud at public expense.”
- Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents El Paso, writes that “the real crisis is not at the border but outside it, and that until we address that crisis, this flow of vulnerable people seeking help at our doorstep will not end.”
- Gail Collins, Opinion columnist, has a few questions about gun violence: “One is, what about the gun control bills? The other is, what’s with the filibuster? Is that all the Republicans know how to do?”
Bret: Right. And I’d oppose any law that disenfranchised any Americans. I just don’t think this one is it.
Gail: Well, it makes absentee ballot voting more difficult, adds voter ID requirements that will be hard on low-income folks, and it shifts power from the secretary of state to the usually-more-conservative Legislature. But onward and upward. I’ve been struck by how often Joe Biden throws in a plug for union organizing. I take it that that’s another non-favorite area?
Bret: I’m actually a fan of unionization when it happens at certain universities that treat their graduate students as indentured servants, or at certain trendy left-wing publications where senior editors champion the cause of unions — except the one that happens to be in-house. Obviously I don’t want the United States to turn into another France, where unions routinely paralyze the country to preserve archaic privileges the country can’t afford, and that drives businesses out of the country.
Gail: Hey, it sounds as if we both have union backgrounds.
Bret: Um …
Gail: I was fired from a job at a weekly in Milwaukee — along with most of the rest of the staff — for trying to organize. A wonderful lawyer volunteered to take our case but after many decades, as far as I know, we’re still in litigation.
So happy we’re sort of in agreement.
Bret: Your union bona fides are a lot stronger than mine. Still, I can’t begrudge Scranton Joe for his stance. It’s who he is. And it helps the U.S. make the case — especially against countries like China — that America also stands for the freedom of workers to organize.
On a more somber note, Gail, do you see any hope for the Biden administration to make some real progress on gun control?
Gail: Well, there are some things the president can do on his own. But most of the big stuff has to go through Congress, and that’s tough. The N.R.A. might be fading, but the pro-gun lobby still has a lot of power because politicians believe it can destroy members from a lot of districts just by screaming “Second Amendment!”
Bret: You know I’ve long thought we need to start a national movement to repeal the Second Amendment. I say this not because I want to deprive most Americans of a legal right to own a firearm, but because I think owning a gun should be a privilege, like driving a car, not a Constitutional right.
Gail: Love that thought.
Bret: I know people think this is a pipe dream, but so was marriage equality 25 years ago. And even if the movement never achieves its goal, it could force gun-rights proponents to accept sensible restrictions on access to guns, like mandatory waiting periods, or required in-depth psychological evaluations for would-be young male buyers …
Gail: I’d say Biden’s biggest challenge is to rally the country to make elected officials more afraid of ticking off gun safety proponents than they are of the other side.
Bret: That too.
Gail: By the way, I never really asked what you thought of Biden’s press conference. Give me a couple of best-and-worst moments.
Bret: I come back to the border situation. Pretending there isn’t a crisis when clearly there is one isn’t going to help Biden. I’m as pro-immigration a conservative as you’ll ever find, but if an administration promises a more lenient approach to unaccompanied children, it is inevitably going to serve as an incentive for kids or their parents to send them north and take their chances. It’s a classic case of good liberal intentions and unintended consequences.
Gail: Any serious solution is going to have to involve a lot of effort by the countries below the border, and I appreciate that’s going to take some time. Meanwhile, we’ve got to get better facilities for all those unaccompanied kids.
Bret: Agree that we have to do more to help countries like Honduras and El Salvador fight the drug gangs. But that’s long term.
Gail: Kamala Harris is stuck with being the point person, and I hope she can get the issue the kind of positive, nonimmigrant-ranting attention it deserves. Maybe in a year or so Biden will be able to unveil a great plan, even if it isn’t accompanied by a miraculously great speech.
Bret: Bipartisan immigration reform that creates a path to citizenship for undocumented people and makes it easier to come to the United States legally than illegally would be the single best thing the administration could do, domestically, on policy grounds.
Gail: It’d be terrific, but we do need to remember it takes two to bipartisan.
Bret: In the meantime, Biden’s goal of doubling the vaccination rate is great and inspiring, especially compared with the mess we’re seeing in terms of the vaccine rollout in Europe. And I appreciated his tough talk on China’s authoritarian leadership. In some ways, Biden’s presidency may one day be remembered as the second coming of Harry S. Truman. A former vice president, underestimated by his critics as a small-town pol, brings middle- class decency back to the White House, expands the social safety net and builds a global order to contain and ultimately defeat an expansionist enemy abroad.
Gail: Wow, remember “Give ‘em hell Harry?” We could have “Pour on the juice, Joey.” Or maybe … something better. But I’m going to be mulling the idea of a new Truman.
Bret: Compromise: “Give ’em hell, Joey?” I like it. As historical comparisons go, we could do a lot worse.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].